Holiday fiction by
Christmas was coming. Who’d be Santa Claus had suddenly gotten sticky. There had to be forty or so kids living in the urban cul-de-sac, all of them in squashed-in apartments in a dozen three- and four-decker buildings, the pigeons on the roof often mingling with the kids at hide-‘n’-seek, romances in dark budding, now and then some contraband or stolen goods getting exposed, two or three gymnasts every generation that managed and used the rooftops for exercises, dares, escapes of one sort or another. Merton Place, from various points of view, was a city in itself.
And Christmas was coming. It was around the corner. And Toby Arsenault and Sam Nicholas had been there the longest of the tenants and enjoyed liberties that others had not attained. Toby collected the rents for the owner who was never seen in this inner city, and Sam was responsible for light maintenance … for that’s all there was outside of the self-taught, self-fixers in this inner population for whatever goods or trade could get them. The favors for such work extended in all directions—north, south, east, west and up and down … the up and down usually was a mutual sharing of tenderness and decent excitement under good cover or locked doors.
And Christmas was coming.
The two hirelings received free rent for their labors. Each task differed by varying degrees depending on natural damages (like lightning, rust, leaky roofs, lay-offs, company strikes, sudden market changes … the corner market where credit was tempted, hampered, shunned, punished), intentional complexities forcing or demanding Sam Nicholas’ intervention with a night visit, tenant characteristics like smoldering anger and jealousy of a father whose weekly pay on his own job often did not cover the full rent or only a heavy portion of it, an abrazingly slow, teasing handover of rent accompanied by unsaid promises from an older daughter of a young widow, for Death and Banishment, both being kind of an exile, hung in the late shadows as though they had also rented space on Merton Place.
Toby was a good-looking forty-year old widower of a dozen years who viewed Merton Place as a kind of heaven, swearing he’d never leave there. Sam Nicholas was fifty if a day, had a better sense of humor than Toby, and could be lied to by adults and kids alike because none of the lies were allowed to mean anything to him or his relations with people. He swaggered home late on Saturday evenings now and then when he’d “leave the territory” so his footprints, fingerprints, bloodline and owed favors had no traceability. He could carpenter an unlevel door, wire a new or replacement electrical outlet, knock off a leaky faucet as if he’d said “Sesame in reverse,” repair a fan or an A/C with the best of them and could wallpaper a room or a hallway (at one level) in one day … for hire. He was called Mr. Fix-It by the ladies of the cul-de-sac.
His face was “Healthy-square,” as one tenant fixed it, “like one of the heroes in the comic section of the Sunday Globe. You know, he’ll be there when you need him, ‘no doubt about it, no bout adout it.’ He’d stick his finger in an open socket to save your kid or mine. He’s not as good looking as Toby, but he’s warmer, his curls are still in place on the back of his neck and sexy where his T-shirt shows him off, and if he ever lets go of that smile of his he’d own more places than the landlord. But it’s got to be reserved for someone special and it looks like she ain’t here yet.”
That view found agreement all over Merton Place, from the ladies, daughters, boys whose trykes and bikes needed fixing, and helpless fathers who looked at electrical outlets like they’d look upon a thick, leather-bound book of Western Civilization.
To a woman they called Toby “Lover-Boy,” some of them directly in person, and with or without smiles or any serious leaning to their intent … as so read by the general population of Merton Place … with curiosity. Toby, on the other hand from Sam’s stand, was suspicious of every story told him by renters, by their daughters and sons if substituted at due day. He felt they impacted his standing in the community, made him a lesser man than was his fellow worker. “Being lied to cheapens both sides of a story.” Toby’s heaven should not be rocked by such insults, as they twisted his view of mankind. All duties and directions should be easy and comfortable; a “yes,” “no,” or “I sure will as soon as I’m done with this one,” did the trick
On rent day they called him, “Groucho without the glasses and the mustache.”
Mrs. Heckles (her real name, FYI) yelled out her window to Toby Arsenault, caught down below as a light snow whipped between her building and the next one, 12 feet apart, where the widow Dunne lived on the same third level with her brood of kids, all six with her blood, from ages four to 15, and her husband dead for six of those years, rental funds now in return for good graces, Mrs. Heckles might advise. She knew that Marcy Dunne would hear every word and actively join the conversation, as Toby Arsenault particularly favored one of the Dunne boys.
“Hey, Toby, if you want a hot coffee, c’mon over. Christmas is comin’ and I’m pavin’ the way. If you don’t like my brand of coffee on a cold day just before Christmas is comin’, I’m sure Marcy across the way has another kind you’ll probably like.”
The window was wide open and a few flakes and a slight breeze came in as company, only making her shiver a little bit so long as she could deliver her message. “Hey, what the heck,” she continued, “Christmas is comin’,” remembering one time she had thrown a bit of light garbage out the window and down into the tight alley. Toby saw her do it and never told Sam Nichols. It would mean something to Sam but not to Toby. “People did such things,” he’d probably muttered to himself, and then lied about it or evaded it entirely. You had to take three steps to their one to keep ahead of them, lies covering more ground than one can imagine, even on a snowy, cold day and Christmas on the horizon.
Marcy Dunne’s window snapped open and she leaned out into the soft snow. “Toby,” she yelled in a voice softer than usual, “I heard you were going to be Santa Claus this year for the little kids. I’m glad to hear that. You’ll make a great Santa Claus for them and for us too, us old but not too old folks. Bring me a present when you get a chance.” She didn’t wait for an answer, didn’t look at Deborah Heckles, and shut the window with loud punctuation.
The snow continued in the alley, the sky getting grayer and grayer, the flakes smaller and smaller. Old timers knew the difference.
Toby said to Sam, window to window on the third deck of their separate buildings, “Some one of them’s elected me as Santa Claus this year, and I hate that stuff. They’ll try to fill me with a bunch of lies and bologna about the rent and I hate that stuff. I really hate it. They lie with their back teeth floating on their tongues like the Devil’s rotating the liar’s tiller by hand. You have to do me a favor, Sam. You got to be Santa Claus. I can’t handle that stuff. It drives me crazy. They lie like tomorrow’s never coming down the home stretch.”
“Think they’d get mad? Any of them?” Sam spoke seemingly just above a whisper as if night was bringing guests, or he didn’t want the topic to transfer to all the tenants. The evening, though, came descending in spasms of shades caused by the snow and a sudden brisk breeze, and night was in the spasms flickering with the snow and the city lights and a bare yellow bulb leaking a yellow glow clawing its way between the houses, from where it burned nightly in the deepest curve of Merton Place, oftentimes the signal to “the way home.”
Sam realized, for the first time, as he leaned over the windowsill, that he was bigger and stouter than Toby, especially around the gut, and would make a better looking Santa Claus than Toby. Whoever played the part would never measure up to Jackson, who had a gift for it, who didn’t have to pick up a red and white uniform once a year to improve himself. Jackson was different than all of them—him, Toby, the landlord, the tenants. He wondered if the red and white suit had transformed him from what he might have been.
It all made him think heavily.
Sam was looking out his back window at the city, now shrouded by the thin whitish-grayish curtain of snow, so light it promised a heavy and constant fall. They were in for a good one. Where lights were popping on and others, more distant, went dimmer and were lost in the thin veil as swift as cancellations. A swift thought slammed into him: an army buddy swallowed by an avalanche on a skiing trip high in western mountains, the only time they had ever skied, he and his old comrades. They hunted two days and never found him, never skiing again, that band of comrades, never coming together again.
“All the ladies are counting on you, Toby, so that means the kids. That’s the way it stands. Too bad old Jackson had to pass on. He was a great Santa for a dozen years. I thought he’d never leave us. The kids really loved him, even the ones that have grown up and pass Christmas like it doesn’t count anymore. That Junkins kid’s a perfect example. Never learned a thing from Christmas, never gave anything to anybody except heartache to his folks and ten straight facing him in jail for one stupid mistake.”
“You believe that, Sam, that it was a mistake? Kid’s been a liar his whole life. I saw it way back. He even stole from Jackson one time, nothing big, but stole a package.”
The falling snow drew Sam out of the past and he wondered what Toby really thought about when things happened to kids, like Spud Jenkins. Toby had told him, on the sly, that he had seen Junkins steal a package left right at Jackson’s door. “Took it like it was his own delivery. Stuffed it in his shirt like he used to load up on candy at Arthur’s Variety.”
“You tell Jackson? You never told Arthur any of that stuff.”
Somehow, with all past histories of the “known felons in our midst,” as Toby whispered, chanted, dispensed as a guarded aside even when they were away from the cul-de-sac, Sam didn’t have to imagine what Toby was thinking, or in this case, cross over to the next building to find out.
He looked at Toby as Toby studied the snow, determining that he too saw the snow as minute pieces of a blanket that would cover everything in sight. Eventually it would hide all surfaces, all projections, all outlines, under its virtual cape, coat, canvas, coverlet, whatever they’d readily call it. For starters, the finest snow falling for hours was able to hide monuments, the Statue of Liberty, the four presidents of the mountainous park, the highest peaks of the Alps, the Himalayas, the Pyrenees, all the mountains he’d try to forget himself, that even Jackson had tried to forget in his half cruise through Hell in WW II … as well as all the lies and feeble excuses ever told. Perpetration, at least, buried for a season.
Was Christmas any different there, in those places?
The split in the two-way conversation and attendant thoughts came with a sudden and strident female voice from below them. “Toby, if you were thinking of wearing Jackson’s Santa Claus suit, you’re not getting the chance. Myrtle just told me it went out with the trash one day. She says she doesn’t know who tossed it, but it’s gone, been gone since just after the funeral, July not having much call for Santa Claus get-ups.” There was a pause. “You better hurry down to Overton’s and get another one. He’s going to close down pretty soon. If you don’t get it at Overton’s, you’ll have to go to Cotton City in this weather to get one.”
Toby, Sam knew, hadn’t been in Overton’s since the great argument over ten years ago. He wouldn’t go now. And he’d never get to Cotton City in this snow, the wind now whirling, the breeze gone to a wind, the spasms now crossed over from sorry palpitations to aches and pains and pure anguish for anyone on the road … and Christmas Eve not holding back for anybody or anything, even old Jolly Nick with a grouch on rough as a P12 grit sandpaper. That’s what the successor-by-demand for Santa Claus had looked like since he had assented to motherly demands. “Motherly” meaning one mother in particular and no name crossing Sam’s lips.
“I can’t do it, Sam. I know I promised, but I can’t do it. No Overton’s either. Never that.”
Toby was looking at Sam as if a favor was due, not eye-to-eye, but keeping his head lowered like one lion in a cage of two, his brows just touching the soulful pupils to be seen where they sat in the fluid of sympathy’s request.
Sam was measuring his silent neighbor, the speed of the wind now accompanied by screams, screeches, howls coming off downspouts, building corners, sheet metal edges of roofs where ice tended to build up in the old days. Sam didn’t look at his wristwatch or the wall clock behind him. He studied more of the lights out beyond them. Saw a dozen more distant lights in a matter of seconds dim, twinkle, sputter, die out. Sideways in a hurry came the snow, banks of it, clouds of it, billowing white, blinding. Travel was out for the night; it was Overton’s or no Santa Claus for the kids, and for the squads of mothers.
Sam got to Overton’s just as the lock clicked in the door, Harry on his way home. He opened the door for Sam, greeted him like an old friend. “What brings you down here, Sam?”
“I need a Santa Claus suit. Jackson’s was thrown in the trash by accident.”
“I got just what you need, yes sir, just what you need. Perfect fit. Tried it on another fellow just yesterday and he thought he was swimming in the Red Sea. Imagine that.” His smile was as wide as a canyon.
“Don’t I have to try it on?”
“No worries, Sam, a perfect fit, I swear. Like that jacket I saved for you. A perfect fit, and at a reduced price on a rental or a purchase.” He looked closely at his watch. “Melva will shoot me if I’m late. She worries so about my driving since that last accident, the insurance case, her sanity, she says.”
His hands were wrung as if he were squeezing pain from them. “Look,” he said quickly, as he checked the time again, “ten dollars for the holiday, twenty dollars for keeps. No buy in town like this one.” He sent one of his special Overton looks; it said all he could amass. (Melva waiting, the snow relentless, the traffic forbidden, past favors all lined up in a row.)
“I’ll take it for the $20,” Sam said triumphantly, just the way Overton liked it, he was sure.
Toby’s light flashed twice and Sam opened his window. “You get it?” Toby said.
“Yup, I got it. Christmas Eve tomorrow and we’re all set.”
“You’re a real pal, Sam,” Toby said and brought his window down with a quick slam.
Snow, the light fluffy kind, flew off the window sill, and running drops of melted snow showed on the window as it hit the sill. Sam couldn’t see Toby turn away from the window, but he knew he did, as usual when he was through window talking.
Christmas Eve rolled in on top of a day’s plowing, the big rigs running three times through the cul-de-sac, shovels at work at all parts of the day, the alleys cleared, cars moved, small arguments about assigned stations for vehicles, kids throwing snowballs, Sam in a relentless attempt to get into the Santa Claus suit that was generations too small for him. No part of it was sufficient for him.
Time pushed its way forward.
The younger kids were down in the snow, dancing in the curve of the street, in the great arc of the cul-de-sac, waiting on Santa Claus, the secret pile of gifts locked in Sadie Quinn’s closet, the key in Sam’s pocket.
Sam Nicholas figured it was time; it didn’t come as retribution, but as a piece of reality that had been bent out of shape, that needed fixing.
He switched the light on and off, his signal to Toby.
Toby’s light flashed on and he pushed up his window and leaned out. “What is it, Sam? You ready?”
Sam let it go. “It doesn’t fit me, Toby. I can’t get one piece on. Not one arm or one leg. It’s too damned small. It’s your size. It’s a special fit for you.”
Toby had never said it before, not this way. “You’re lying to me, Sam. That’s your problem. You promised.” It looked as if he was going to slam his window down on top of Christmas Eve. That would be the end of it all, he was certain. Everything they had ever done, alone or together, as a team, or as double agents for the landlord.
But there was left-handed support in the matter for Sam as he thought about settling with Overton, but more so, saving Christmas Eve for the toddlers, the kids, the ones hanging on the edge of Santa Claus, their fingers in the final grip, mothers with their fingers crossed for one more year of innocent smiles, acute acceptance.
Mild, sometimes passive, always pleasant, well-liked though he was getting stouter than ever, “He’ll never be as lean as Lover-Boy,” Sam Nichols leaned way out the window and yelled, “Marcy Dunne, will you come up here to see me. It’s pretty important.” His voice shot down into the alley like bomb bay doors had opened.
A single light went on in Toby Arsenault’s apartment; he was wearing his old black jacket, soon it would be a red jacket, of that Sam was sure. He knew Toby as well as anybody ever would, both sides of him, the outer and the inner. The only thing he’d worry about would be the Santa Claus smile, the “Merry Christmas” salutations, how Toby might handle his own biggest lies.